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I am a very practical person, so I never understood the allure of the fantasy genre. It wasn’t until I read Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, a science fiction tale about a 26-year-old Black woman whose dizzy spells send her back to the plantation where her family was held captive, that I began finding these fictional universes more fascinating than whatever the hell was going on on Earth.
So when a global pandemic rendered us mask-wearing, sanitizer-yielding germaphobes while collectively mourning the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I needed escapism. The CW’s Black Lightning, now in its third season, is a portal into a world unlike this one. It creates a universe beyond the empty promise of “thoughts and prayers,” giving us a vigilante hero dedicated to protecting Black lives.
Black Lightning finds Garfield High School principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) in two drastically different altercations with the police within the first five minutes of the series. When we first meet him, he’s bailing his daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) out of jail for protesting against gang violence in their Freeland neighborhood. He hasn’t even finished scolding her in the car before sirens blare in his rearview mirror. Before you know it, Pierce is slammed on the front of a police cruiser, while another officer points a gun at his daughters, who watch in fear from their vehicle. Pierce allegedly ‘matches the description’ of someone who robbed a nearby liquor store, but he is really just becoming another victim of racial profiling, or driving while black, by the police.
It doesn’t matter that Pierce is considered “Black Jesus” around Freeland, or that he’s on his way to lead a fundraiser for the kids in his community. His accomplishments don’t make his life any more valuable than that of the person who actually robbed the store, but the incident is one we’ve seen before from cell phones and body cams. It is the terror of knowing that people like Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and more recently, Rayshard Brooks, did not make it home after being stopped by the police. When Pierce’s eyes flash like lightning during the altercation, it’s the first sign that he’s not your average citizen.
But police brutality isn’t what brings his alter ego, Black Lightning, out of a nine-year hiatus. Black Lightning’s return is partly selfish, but his actions do a brilliant job of magnifying larger issues that are affecting more than just his family. His daughters Anissa and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) are kidnapped by The 100, a local gang who run a sex-trafficking ring, and are responsible for the recent disappearance of numerous girls. There are countless real-life examples of this danger; in 2017, a dozen Black and Latinx girls went missing from the D.C. area, prompting public criticism about why there wasn’t any urgency to find them.
The distrust between Freeland and its police department reflects the two-thirds of Black Americans who are also skeptical about the motives of authorities who are supposed to protect and serve. But, with Black Lightning and the powers his daughters go on to inherit, the residents of Freeland don’t have to wait for an unjust system to right its wrongs.
The mistrust of these institutions makes the government the show’s biggest nemesis. There is a storyline in which Greenlight, a fictional synthetic drug, was placed in Black and brown communities to make residents more docile, but instead, the drug ended up turning some users into metahumans. Those people were kept in pods and experimented on for 30 years, while Greenlight got more potent and the streets got more dangerous. This all sounds like a far-fetched concept until you remember that according to John Ehrlichman, a top advisor in Richard Nixon’s administration, drugs (specifically, crack cocaine) were placed in Black and brown communities so the government could control them. In a 1994 interview, Ehrlichman detailed the plan to writer Dan Baum, who published those remarks in a 2016 report for Harper’s Magazine years after Ehrlichman’s death. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” Baum quotes Ehrlichman as saying. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Watching a storyline where Black people are being used for medical research ignites a different level of paranoia during COVID-19, when it is said that the success of a vaccine relies largely on the participation of Black patients, due to the high incidence of confirmed COVID cases among Black Americans. At a time when posting black squares is considered taking a stance, who else but Black Lightning could protect us from a second coming of the Tuskegee Experiment of 1932, wherein 600 Black men were unknowingly used as test subjects for syphilis?
In the past two years, Black-led television series and films have gotten creative in using supernatural narratives to expose the ways law enforcement often fails Black communities. Last year’s Don’t Let Go portrays a Black detective as the only officer in his community concerned with solving the deaths of his family, which his coworkers dismiss as a murder-suicide. Piecing together clues from phone calls from his niece, whom he finds is still alive in a different dimension, exposes that his relatives were actually killed by a ring of dirty cops. Netflix’s See You Yesterday, released just a few months later, also defies the concept of time; the only way science whiz Claudette Walker can save her brother from being gunned down by the NYPD is by making a time machine. And HBO’s Watchmen is an ambitious story about vigilantes tackling race and power told through the context of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. After the Tulsa police force is attacked by a white supremacist organization, cops wear masks to conceal their identities, making it difficult to distinguish who is friend or foe. When it comes to law and order, these depictions of the police reinforce that it can feel as though we have a better chance of fighting crime and enacting justice ourselves.
Since 2013, 99 percent of police-involved murders have not resulted in a conviction. It has been over 100 days since Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor. It took three months to fire an officer involved, and no arrests have been made. Now that we’re calling racism and systemic oppression by its name, changes must be made. It is a pretty bleak existence when you’re wondering when the vigilantes will come to rescue us all.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.